Re-Symbolizing our World

The Roman Goddess Nike


When St. Paul visited Ephesus and spent several years of ministry there, he would have seen the Nike ‘swish’ very similar to that which has become almost ubiquitous in our day. Visiting Ephesus, I too saw an ancient stone carving of the goddess who personified victory during the time of Greek culture’s prevalence. The ruin depicts the goddess in a posture from which emulates the same basic design in the modern symbol.

This winged goddess had as her Roman equivalent, Victoria. Often portrayed as the divine charioteer, she and her siblings were known as close companions of Zeus, the dominant deity of the Greek pantheon. In Greek art she is shown flying above battlefields rewarding the victors with glory and fame. This goddess of victory, speed and strength was one of the most commonly portrayed figures on Greek coins. Names such as Nicholas and Nicole come from this ancient goddess and mean: ‘victory of the people.’

Modern advertizers know that symbols are important as part of their brand and advertizing positioning. The Nike swish and the Apple apple say what a word or words no longer have to say. At one time, Nike advertisers included the name along with the symbol: now the symbol says it all.

Christians still live in a subculture largely dominated by words. Our culture has moved not always to exclude words but accenting sight and sound, emotion and movement, many in our churches are not yet comfortable.

Yet, even ‘bad’ symbols are powerful symbols.

Visiting the ancient village of my ancestors, in Suffolk, England, I found that the walls of the large church, where little baby Barbers were christened for many generations, had been whitewashed. As in mant similar churces - great and small, some of them now revealed by intent and by time, in all likelihood, pictures and murals lie buried beneath many layers. When removed, one can see there depicted many stories and characters of the Old and New Testaments.

In a day when most people were illiterate (and if there was a Bible it was chained at the altar rail of such churches), one way of portraying and augmenting the power of the Bible’s stories was by painting them, usually in vivid colours and striking, compelling scenes. Post-Reformation iconoclasts (such as a man named Dowsing in that area of East Anglia) insisted that such 'idolatrous' pictures be covered over with layers of whitewash. At the same time, wooden and stone carved heads of saints were knocked off in niches and on baptismal fonts. Rood screens (often with elaborately carved and painted Bible characters and stories) were torn out and, in many cases, stained-glass windows depicting the stories in the medium of glass, were also destroyed.

But symbols are not evil. They are pointers. They are icons or windows to something or Someone beyond. They become idolatrous only if they are worshiped in themselves; the intent is that due honour and worship goes to the One to Whom they ultimately point.

One pastor tells that, while watching television, an advertisement for cat food came on. He pointed to the television to direct his cat to the food and other furry friends depicted there. ’Look, there are some of your friends!’ But, he noted, his cat only came over and sniffed his fingers. The same happens in effect when we see only the pointer (the image, the icon, the symbol) and fail to see to what or to Whom it's pointing. As the hymn-writer posits: ‘Beyond the sacred page, I seek Thee, Lord.’

Advertizers are putting their own brand on -- and symbolizing our world. Christians would do well to re-symbolize their world too, re-gathering and creating anew helpful pointers to the Presence of God and His Kingdom which with a deep, yet as yet unknown desire, so many are longing to see.

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